Authors Note: Here is a short story I wrote for a Wattpad contest in 2016, then later edited it and added more. Hope you enjoy!
My eyes fixated on an old wooden swing hanging from two frayed ropes knotted around a sturdy branch. Memories flashed through my mind. They were distant, like the horizon in an evening fog, but they existed. I could remember the feeling of the wind blowing through my hair and the world teetering around me from the swing as I first saw sky, then grass, then sky again. My tiny fingers clung around the scratchy ropes as I laughed and squealed while a pair of gentle hands pushed me higher and higher. It was a strain to look over my shoulder, but I would do it often to share my glowing smile with my mother.
Her face was kind, her lips a crimson frame for her bleached teeth, and her hair like silk as the sun brightened the chestnut color and revealed a hint of honey. She urged me to keep a good grip on the ropes, and I listened, but I couldn’t help myself if I happened to glance behind me to catch a glimpse of her.
A bout of weakness caught my breath as my hands started to tremble. As I choked on my fluttering heart I glanced about for a place to rest. I settled onto the closest bench and breathed my way through it until my thumping chest slowed to a steadier beat. My fingers curled in a tight vise around the edge of the bench until they hurt, but it was all I could do to keep my head from spinning. Slowly I flattened my feet against the ground and let my shoulders slump, though even the slivers of wood digging into my fingers did not loosen my grip. Each breath taunted me to remind me my nerves could never settle.
In order to take my mind off of my current disposition I let my focus wander aimlessly. The sun struggled to radiate warmth from behind the dismal sky, and the stream nearby murmured as it wound along its man-made bank. A knoll of emerald grass rolled into the flat trails along the waterline, and beside it were freshly painted benches and picnic tables that I’d last seen decorated in dried leaves and poor attempts to cover slanderous graffiti. How things had changed over time.
I glanced at the armrest of the bench and remembered how I would climb on it and curl myself around my mother. I could hear her laughter oh so barely, the sound like a ghost. The weakness churned until it left me aching from the burden of physical and emotional strain.
After I felt I was safe from my nerves for a bit I shifted my gaze to my hands. Frowning, I recalled how blissful it was when they were tiny and clumsy. I wished for days as pleasant as those. Now my hands were long and frail, and the veins stood out unusually as if I were an old woman. The bones could be seen as if they were all that was left of me and with every twitch of my fingers I could see the tendons shifting beneath my thin flesh.
I remembered that, as time went on, I went to that park less and less; not just because of the gangs who took it over. I’d become too tired to play. Soon, I stopped feeling the wind in my hair and seeing mother’s laughter as I hung on her arm. Her smiles turned to tears as I looked up at her from my bed. No, not my bed, but the bed I had been given in the hospital. She tried to smile all the same still, and any sorrow she felt she hid behind a comforting expression. I would have cried if I could, but the enervation I felt prevented it. All they ever told me at that time was, “You’re sick, darling. It’ll pass.” Time proved them wrong.
After a month I was able to cry again. It was when I saw my hair in a golden pile on the ground. My head felt light and cold and I was ashamed of my appearance. That was one of the last smiles I remembered of hers. It wasn’t a joyful one, but a consoling one. I remembered her telling me, “It’s going to be just fine. You are the strongest little girl I know.” If only she had been the strongest.
It was when I was still in that bed one evening. I thought of her smile every moment in order to keep me as strong as she said I was. I heard a violent rattle echo from outside the hospital. I thought I recognized it as a gun, like the ones I’d heard playing on movies, but I was too weak to get up and peer out the window. Then there were sirens.The wailing hurt my ears from how close it was and how many there were, and all I could do was press my hands to my ears.
That night my father came to visit me alone. Usually they were together, he and my mother, but when I asked him where she was he burst into tears and collapsed in the chair by my bed. I’d never seen him cry before.
“Mommy can’t come to visit anymore because she’s gone to heaven.” It didn’t make sense, I didn’t want it to make sense, but the realization sank in. I felt as if what strength I’d gained unraveled, and faster than anything I’d decided to hate the world forever.
He held me as close as he could without disconnecting my wires, and I cried insuppressible tears that burned with enmity. My hair was starting to grow back now, but I could still feel every tear of his fall against the top of my scalp. “There are bad people in the world who hurt good people,” he explained in a hoarse whisper. That was his way of reconciling with it, but it wasn’t enough for me.
That next day the park shut down. They gated it off as being too dangerous for the public, and no one was allowed in it anymore. Eventually, not even the gangs would sneak back in there. I cried every day, and when I was well enough to stand I’d look out the hospital window at the park in the distance and wish to scream at it. The one time I tried they promptly scolded me and tucked me in their white sheets and told me to rest.
Over time they told me I was doing well, that I’d fought the cancer off. I was sent home with my father where we tried to maintain a normal life together, though neither of us seemed to recover our hearts from their broken state. He and I stayed relatively distant, and as I got older he let his soul age far beyond his years. I moved away, to attend college of course, but that fell short when halfway through my sophomore year I received a call that he’d committed suicide.
My return home was permanent and I took up a job as a waitress. Typical washout, it seemed, when I’d been going to school for a degree in business management. I hadn’t planned entirely on what I’d do, but I never wanted to settle for something mediocre. With both my parents gone, however, it seemed my obligation to stay in the city I grew up in. If I left I felt as if I’d be abandoning the memory of them.
Now, years later, the gate had been removed from the park. They’d cleaned it up nicely before announcing its reopening, and on that very first day I was determined to return. I felt vulnerable seated on the bench. Having only recently started treatment again it seemed too easy for anyone to spot me as a troubled being. I much preferred being away from the imprisonment of a hospital room though, even if the fresh air I told myself I needed was stale, downtown air.
It was nice to see other people enjoying the beauty of the park. Some wandered about having never seen it before while others walked along the trails with familiar fondness on their faces. The incident of my mother’s death was a faded story from long ago to most of them, being that my mother was the only casualty. To me, however, it was all I had left of her.
“They sure touched things up around here.”
I glanced over my shoulder at the bench a few feet away from me to find a man around my age seated there. His gaze followed the landscape before his eyes drifted back to the start and followed people as they walked by. I gave a gentle hum as my response, not entirely in the mood to remove the wall we all have of staying in our own world around strangers.
Still, he spoke further. “Used to be a place of two completely opposite worlds. By day it was the perfect little place for families, but at night it was overrun with gangs.” His head turned and his eyes fell on me now. I avoided returning the gaze and hoped he’d move on soon.
“You ever come here before it was closed?”
At first I was offended by the question. What was he getting at? If he knew so much history about the place then perhaps he should mind his own business and remember there are people connected to prior circumstances. Since when did people start bothering to talk to other people, anyway?
“A few times,” I replied nonetheless.
He nodded as if in approval of my statement. “Me too. I never liked it much. Seeing it like this in a whole new light sorta messes with my memories.” His chest heaved as he sank lower and his eyes fell to his feet.
“I liked it very much,” I snapped. How dare he say such a thing, as if it were to be disregarded as a pile of garbage.
“You must have visited it during the daytime.”
I then realized what he was indicating. Two different worlds. It puzzled me, though, for he wasn’t old enough to have been a gang member all those years ago; not unless he was slinging a pistol with mama there to make sure he had his shoes on the right feet.
“I know, sounds a bit dark of me to reveal to a stranger. Can I tell you something, though?” There it was again, he was staring at me.
I wanted to say no, to tell him to please leave me alone, but I couldn’t. I saw pain in him, like the pain in me. Not my illness nor the weakness eating at my body, but the crushing sorrow that ate at my heart. I resolved to say nothing.
He took that as invitation to tell me what was burning in his mind. “You look like someone who knows this place more than others, like you know the secrets of it. These people walking around… they don’t get it.” His lips trembled. “I’ve seen horrible things happen here before. All this time, and the memories still stick with me.”
“Why have you come back, then?” Shoot! Why’d I open my mouth?
“I was hoping I could find some peace. I thought seeing this place renewed could… renew me in a way. Does that make sense or am I sounding like a lunatic?”
“It makes sense, actually,” I responded. “That’s sort of my own reasoning for coming back.” Well, any ice left of my wall had broken and I now felt connected to him to an extent. The people around faded and I was taken back to a time when the sun was actually beautiful. Perhaps it was fate he and I were there simultaneously to reconcile with our pasts, however different they were.
My newfound acquaintance raked his finger’s across his hair before he rested his head in his palms. The expression of his down-turned face was still evident even from such an angle, and I could tell the definition of the creases in his brow. Perhaps as I was reliving the pleasant recollections of my life he was struggling to push through the images of a ghostly past that haunted him day and night. My chest ached as I felt his affliction.
“It’s not like it was my fault, but the guilt eats at me,” he murmured as he followed his own train of thought.
With a scrunched brow I peered quizzically at him, unsure what he meant. He didn’t notice my stare, and I wasn’t sure what tolerance he’d have if I asked. Nevertheless, he sniffled and lifted his head with a slow sigh before his hands dropped to his lap. As he slouched he half smiled, though it was obvious it was not of amusement.
“Well, if you find any peace of mind please let me know. It’s rarely obtainable these days it seems,” I muttered.
“I’d hoped you might’ve found something with all your gazing about.” We both chuckled a sort of airy laughter at that, but it faded away and left me with an empty sort of diversion. “So, what terrible thing taunts you to come here in search of life’s answers?”
Somehow it seems natural he’d ask me, yet I felt indecent asking him. With a sigh I crossed my arms over my torso as I sank into the bench, and all at once I was reminded of the people walking about and that it was bleak and now threatening of rain. “Memories, really,” I replied. “Perhaps a hope to find some hope, or a little justness in the world. Or maybe to find the reason I’m alive and she’s-” I stopped. Now I’d gotten too personal. It was none of his business and, as I squeezed my arms closer around me, I felt offended he’d ever asked.
From the corner of my eye I could see him peering at me as if I were his kindergarten storyteller; undoubtedly the expression was much like the one I’d given him a moment before, and I regretted ever letting this conversation transpire. He stood, rather abruptly, and shoved his hands in the pockets of his dirt-stained jeans. My simple blue dress wasn’t much to be admired, but I hadn’t realized before how simply dressed he was as well.
“I’ve lost people before too. I lost both my parents.” He bit his lip and his eyes fell. He turned toward me, then in a few steps he was at my bench and seated at my side. I scooted an inch or two away from him as subtly and naturally as I could, unsure why he’d made such a move.
“It’s a personal subject, don’t worry about.” I hoped he would think of it as a way of letting him know he had no need to delve into the matter, but even more so I meant in the sense that I didn’t want to go any deeper.
“Have you ever held onto something for so long, something you’ve never told anyone else, and eventually it just burns you up inside until you feel like you’re a walking hole of nothing?”
I’d never heard it described as such but his depiction of the grief and hatred I myself knew was uncannily accurate. “I suppose after awhile I learned to live with it.” Another confession I hadn’t planned.
“I don’t know how you can, but maybe I’ve got different reasons.”
“Death isn’t an easy thing to get over,” I tried to console. I scanned each face that passed us by, unsure if anyone was staring but wary in case they were. I felt exposed, like a crevice had formed in my private world and others could peer inside and sneak a glimpse.
“I don’t know if they’re actually dead or not.”
Now I was concentrated fully on him. “I thought you…” My words trailed off as I found no way to conduct my thought in a sensitive manner.
“I meant it when I said I lost them both, but I only think my mom is dead now. She left us when I was four. I remember watching her walk out the door while my sister and I ate dinner. Our dad was gone for the night, but she never came back. He tried to go after her the next morning when he got home. Mom never came back, and he told us, ‘The drugs got her and she ain’t gonna see the sun again.
“Eventually, after a few years, he started taking me with him to his drug meets, or they’d come to our house. My sister moved in with her boyfriend so he was all I had. They taught me to fight and be like them, and on my seventh birthday they gave me a switch blade.”
Words escaped me as I listened to his tale, and my own woes suddenly felt insignificant compared to the tragedy he’d seen. “What happened to your father?” I had hardly noticed the question coming from my lips as I tried to think of what the end of the story could be.
His face sank as his shoulders lowered. “He got into trouble all the time, but never once was he caught. He thought he was invincible to all things. One day he grabbed me off my bike by the arm and forced me all the way to the park. One of his buddies met up with him and they got into a pretty heated discussion. My dad was drunk and probably high so he wasn’t careful about his words.
“A lady was there that night, and while they were yelling at each other she overheard them and started to call the cops. I saw her eyes; she was worried, but it seemed like she only feared for me as she kept a close watch on me. My dad panicked when he caught her on the phone, and he asked her what she was doing. She tried to reason him out of his fury, but it only got worse. The other guy had already run off.”
My throat felt as if it were being asphyxiated and my heart danced an odd rhythm. A tear slipped from my eyes but I wasn’t able to wipe it away. It was as if I were stuck in a trance, my mind blank other than the words he spoke. They filled my head, circulating like a swarm of bees.
“It only took a couple seconds before he lost it completely. I watched everything, from him shooting her all the way up to him being cuffed and dragged off to prison. The cops had already been on their way; they overheard what was happening on the lady’s phone and had dispatched a couple units.”
He looked at me, and I was sure the difficulty to restrain my tears was apparent, but I didn’t want to reveal it to him just yet. Here we were, two people from two different worlds, yet we weren’t so different. We weren’t so distant either. Our stories intersected, our pain intertwined, and all I could think of was how much hatred I’d carried with me all this time.
“I sat with the woman as she died. I’d never met anyone so selfless before. The whole time she asked me if I was okay. She told me to answer every question the cops asked me truthfully, that they’d keep me safe. Then, through all her pain, she smiled the prettiest smile I’d ever seen. She told me about her little girl who was my age and how she loved her so much. She told me she was strong, and she could see the same strength in me. Even though I was confused, it gave me what little hope I’d needed in that moment.”
I couldn’t see much beyond the blur of tears in my eyes any longer and I knew for certain he noticed as his expression twisted. To my own embarrassment I broke into an unrestrained sob as I let my head fall into my arms. He said nothing, did nothing, only sat there and watched me. After the pain had been released and I’d cried off what mascara and eyeliner I’d applied that morning, I lifted my head again.
Nothing was changed. People still walked along the park trails, the sky was still dull and a small raindrop fell every few seconds, and my stranger of a companion still sat next to me. Yet, the world felt a little lighter, like oxygen had filled the suffocation I’d always felt.
His lips pursed as they lowered into a frown. As his eyes searched my expression I tried to offer an apologetic smile, but it didn’t remove the anguished look on his face. “You loved her a lot, didn’t you?”
“More than life,” I breathed.
“I didn’t know love existed like that. Never once in my life did I find it. For a moment she made me feel a little warmer. I’ve tried to hold onto that all this time. It’s been my only hope, and all the times I thought to put a gun to my head I remembered she’d called me strong. I couldn’t let her down, the woman I watched die because of my father. I couldn’t let him kill me too.”
Tears fell still as I stared into his broken expression. “She was always good at giving people some hope.” Surely people were staring now, but it didn’t matter. If they only knew what depth of pain, what extent of tribulation lay in the soil of that park, they’d understand. “Thank you.”
His face scrunched as he tilted his head a little. “For what?”
“Returning a bit of my mother to me.”
After another second of gazing into my eyes, he nodded slowly. “My father was sentenced to life in prison for all the things they were able to convict him on. He’s paying for his crimes. I always thought that would heal my wounds but it never did. I figured maybe you knowing would help with yours, though.”
I nodded in gratitude. “I think it’s time I let my wounds heal and quit opening them like a suitcase of problems to be unpacked,” I stated. “It’s not worth it to hold onto anymore.”
He nodded again as his gaze became distant. In his eyes I could see beyond the dull day we faced. I saw rays of hope like the sun and a world of new realities danced across the horizons in his mind. It was warm and I was certain I could feel my skin burning as the cold days my soul had strived through thawed.
As he let out a quiet sigh, his gaze drifted to me again. “You think we’ve found that peace that’s so hard to obtain? Maybe just a piece of it?”
“I think we have.” For the first time in over a decade I gave a genuine smile.
His face lit up and the slightest hint of a tear wet his eyes. “Your smile looks just like hers,” he said. “Even through all your pain.”
I fixated on the wooden swing, the echo of laughter ringing through my memory again. This time it was clear, like the rising of the sun, and I held onto the warmth that kindled in the depths of me. “Perhaps there’s a little more to life than the pain we keep inside. Perhaps there’s some hope to be found and some help to give the people who’ve lost it.”